King Lear and The Noh Theatre Elusive Visual and Musical Beauty

Nélida Nassar   03.05.2016

Al Bustan Festival presents Noh master-performer Naohiko Umewaka in King Lear and the Death of a Pianist. Naohiko Umewaka writes, directs and reenacts his role as King Lear, 19 years after having performed it originally under the direction of Ong Keng Sen in Lear Dreaming, and had toured Asia, Europe and the USA. The producer Madeleine Abdel-Jail Umewaka re-appropriates Sen’s piece and gathers members of the Umewaka’s family, her own husband, Naohiko as King Lear, her son Naotomo as Regan and a servant and her daughter, Soraya as Cordelia. Pianist and music director Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua as well as young Lebanese aspiring actress Anne-Marie Salameh in the role of the king eldest daughter Goneril and the leading story teller complete the cast.

Silence and darkness surrounds the stage, suddenly dimmed lights reveal an austere, minimalist decor consisting of three tables, a piano and an electronic keyboard all covered with white sheets that soon will come to life. From the side of the stage, Salameh emerges from the shadow piercingly declaiming a funeral oration then proceeds to recount the story of a pianist who was entirely devoted to the musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.

Masked Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua finishes his cup of tea, then proceeds to the electronic keyboard to revive King Lear’s story and his relationship with his daughters. He starts off with Gershwin’s I loves you Porgy. Dressed in red and perched on stilettos, Salameh converses with Cordelia attired in an immaculate white dress and Lear in his multilayered shimmering costume, that gives him an oversized, sculptural presence as he moves with the music. While the play is acted out by Cordelia, Regan and Lear, they consecutively appear face covered with the severe elegance of their powerful masks. Ferrand-N’Kaoua moves behind the piano and from one partition to the other unfolds the plot with his crisp – George Gershwin, Jacques Duphly, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Alban Berg, Maurice Ravel, Jean Sebastien Bach, Amadeo Mozart, Oscar Peterson and Richard Wagner – fluid notes.

An eclectic program from all musical periods where the main music interconnection is the pianist personal drama interpretation. With impetuous rhythms and unpredictable harmonies, he manifested his breathtaking virtuosity, his fingers running up and down scales with impressive dexterity, and his hands jumping across the piano keyboard with perfect precision. Most striking is his range of dynamics at times. Ferrand-N’Kaoua produced notes so hushed and delicate and at other times, he released notes so thundering and powerful demonstrating his virtuosic dimension and his exceptional expressive and poetic depth.

While the subject of King Lear is fascinating, the performance suffered from over-compression: too many brief scenes, too little character exploration with the exception of Lear, Goneril and Regan, a total absence of the rest of King Lear’s daughters and cast. But Abdel-Jail Umewaka production does give its three main actors a chance to explore different facets of the Noh theatre tradition of understatement, abstraction, elegance, refinement and suggestion.

Naohiko Umewaka is outstanding as King Lear, capturing his supercilious self-certainty and ability to see himself as the spirit of the king: there is a beautiful moment when he slips into madness holding his murdered daughter while blood-stained dress before plunging into his own death. He is less successful as a writer and artistic director. Soraya Umewaka had a tougher task as Cordelia, but she invested the character with an earthy humanity and beautiful dancing that offsets her fatal death. I learned much from the Noh theatre performance which combines elements of dance, drama, music and poetry into one highly aesthetic stage art, but it’s difficult to create a fragmented epic for three characters adequately portraying Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Naohiko Umewaka: King Lear, Artistic Director and Writer
Soraya Umewaka: Cordelia
Naotomo Umewaka: Regan and Servant
Anne-Marie Salameh:  Goneril and Festival Organizer

Eric Ferrand-N’Kaoua: Pianist and Music Director
Madeleine Abdel-Jail Umewaka: Producer, MJU-PR